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8 minutes reading time (1674 words)

January/February 2019: Book Reviews

Managing Stage Fright: A Guide for Musicians and Music Teachers, by Julie Jaffee Nagel. 

Julie Nagel possesses a rare combination of skills. She has two music degrees from The Juilliard School, three psychology degrees from the University of Michigan, and further training at the Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute. I often joke with students and colleagues that I wish my doctoral studies in piano performance had included more psychology classes; after all, so much of teaching—and even performing—relies on much more than simply sitting down for endless hours of practice at the piano. Indeed, musicians require a deep understanding of human psychology. Fortunately for us, the author of this fascinating book decided to acquire knowledge in both disciplines. 

Even though I don't particularly suffer from stage fright, Nagel's book is an extremely helpful guide to encouraging my students to perform with confidence. One of the many facets of teaching is the transfer of knowledge, and—if the teacher does not have specific experience to draw upon (in this case, debilitating stage fright)—lessons and concert preparation may come to an impasse. In these cases, Nagel's volume would become a powerful teaching tool.

The book is very practical, with thirteen detailed chapters divided in clear subsections. Each chapter starts with a highlighted Question for Thought and ends with Implications for Teachers. Since the book is not narrative, the format (assisted by the detailed table of contents) allows the reader to skip around the sections, looking for those most relevant to the issue at hand. Most chapters also include a Vignette, in which the author humanizes the problems, providing ways to approach specific issues in real-life situations.

A particularly effective chapter is the Virtual Recital (Chapter 11). Here, Nagel provides effective behavioral and psychodynamic techniques for alleviating specific problems related to performance anxiety. The question- and-answer format of this chapter is very easy to follow, and it addresses most of the often-displayed symptoms.

At times, the book may become a little repetitive, occasionally reinforcing ideas too many times. And the distinction between charts and tables is not always clear. Chart 2.1 on p. 21, for instance, is identical to Table 7.2 on p. 81. It would be clearer to simply refer to the original chart. Nonetheless, Nagel's volume is a very welcome addition to any personal library and will certainly help teachers and students understand the complex issue of performance anxiety. Highly recommended. (Oxford University Press, 232 pages. Paperback $19.95.)

—Alexandre Dossin 

Minibooks, Levels A, B, C, and D, by Kristine Gore. 

Truly fine sight-reading materials are hard to come by. Some publishers have addressed this deficit nicely in recent years: FJH's Sight Reading and Rhythm Every Day series, for example, works well and provides thorough reading exercises in a format that students generally enjoy. But, due to the more pressing weekly demands of learning and perfecting repertoire, sight-reading exercises, like theory workbooks, are frequently shelved. Balance is the key, but when you have only thirty-to-forty-five minutes to juggle all aspects of a student's music study, what's needed is a quick, efficient solution. Kristine Gore's Minibooks series is just that—an efficient way to include weekly sight- reading exercises in the lesson plan.

Granted, efficiency isn't high on most students' lists of what makes music lessons appealing. Playing monotonous exercises or reading through excerpts and short, easier pieces can quickly become routine and uninspiring. Teachers may also feel that most sight-reading exercises supply no real excitement or understanding of the long-term learning goal. Enter Gore's Minibooks! They are exciting, motivating, brilliantly sequenced sight- reading books that can be used by beginner-through- intermediate pianists.

This reviewer discovered the Minibooks as a side exploration of Gore's excellent app, PianoFlash!—an app designed specifically for piano students. Students identify notes on the staff by playing each note on a keyboard graphic at the bottom of the screen. My piano students really liked the app, and so did I. Because the app was such a hit with my students, I became curious to discover what else the author and her website had to offer.

Clicking on the info button in the app's home screen took me to Gore's website, www.minibooksmusic.com. There I found several excellent teaching aids, foremost among them the Minibooks Music Reading Series. (The other materials created by Gore—the rhythmic exercises, Tappers, and the Mini-Theory Books—are well worth exploring, too. All are available for purchase on the website.)

On her site, Gore explains her inspiration for these excellent little books. She notes that beginning students tend to be aural rather than visual learners, and that convincing students to look at patterns and notes is the challenge. "So how could I keep attention on the notes" she asks. Gore writes: 

I decided that pages should resemble flash cards, and be presented in a very organized way. The first exercises would therefore be patterns, not melodies, so that the children would not be able to anticipate the outcome, yet provide enough clues to ensure success. Real sight reading means that it is played once and the page is turned. Therefore, there would have to be many pages providing continuous challenge. The pages would be small; the very few notes on each page would be large; and there would be absolutely nothing else on the page except music.

Gore has thus made directional reading the main focus in the series. Each page in the Minibooks contains a series of notes, not simply a single note to identify. Further, there is also absolutely no fingering in any of the books, so students must learn to rely on their eyes to tell their fingers where to go; they can then confirm that choice with their ears. Reading becomes fluid, and pattern recognition is reinforced.

The series contains four progressive levels (A, B, C, and D), each with ten books, for a total of forty books. Each book contains only twenty pages of short reading exercises that range from two to eight notes, with each level limiting the reading content to a specific range on the keyboard. For example, Level A contains only the notes found in Middle C position, while Level C's range extends from the lowest note of the bass staff to the highest note of the treble. In Level A, only quarter notes are used, and there are no meters or bar lines; those elements are gradually added as the series moves along. Level D extends the reading range to the full grand staff and ledger lines, and includes eighth notes and accidentals.

The sheer brilliance of the reading sequence in each of the books is a tribute to Gore's insightful and thoughtful creativity, plus her canny instinct for knowing how students learn to see and understand notated music. All the short note patterns build upon the previous page's note sequence and lead into the next page cleverly and naturally. 

Sometimes, a truly simple reading exercise appears—a page with only one note, or a page that repeats a previous page, note for note. These pages always engender surprise and giggles because they are such an obvious and welcome "gimme." Some phrases echo well-known folk tunes, and I use those to ask students if they recognize the snippet of the tune.

In addition, some of the appeal for my students is visual. The covers are colorful—a rich red, deep green, pale blue, or vibrant purple cover defines each level, and the size of the books is just right. Because there are ten books in each level, students become eager to complete one level so they can move along to the next. And, since my students use the Minibooks only at their lessons, the books are even more intriguing and special. They routinely beg me to work in these books! With great anticipation, they plead, "Can I do the red books today, please?"

We often play a game with them that I call "Just Do It!" We set a timer, and the fun begins. Students read through one book as quickly as possible, with me frantically turning pages as they play each of the twenty reading exercises. I quickly hit the stop button on the timer and we record the time for that reading. When students can read through all twenty pages in under a minute, they move on to the next book in the level. The books would also be fun to use for timed team relays at performance classes.

In short, Gore has found a delightful way to make sight-reading an almost addictive challenge for students. Each reading segment is very short, logical, and, therefore, attainable. That is the key.

Students feel capable because they see only a few notes at a time, and speedily turn the pages to find out what comes next. Gore's Minibooks are like the best video games: you need to focus on the task at hand and rely on rapid eye-hand coordination and response. You feel super-motivated to keep going through a book because the rewards (playing all the right notes on each page) are within your grasp—or at least within reach. And the reward is to go on to the next level. Cue the endorphins! (Available at minibooksmusic.com; $40 for each set of ten, or $120 for a complete set of forty books) 

—Peggy Otwell 


This Issue's Contributors:

Susan Geffen is a Managing Editor of Clavier Companion. She is active as a music educator, adjudicator, presenter, panelist, critic, and specialist in Recreational Music Making. She is also an English teacher.

Steinway Artist Alexandre Dossin is Professor of Piano at the University of Oregon School of Music, where he chairs the piano department. He is the Vice President of the American Liszt Society.For more information, visit www.dossin.net. 

Peggy Otwell, D.M.A., teaches at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, where she is actively engaged in building UWM's undergraduate piano pedagogy degree program. She has presented concerts and workshops throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe, and is especially noted for her performances of French repertoire. 

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Book Review: A Dictionary for the Modern Pianist
January/February 2019: New Music Reviews
 

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Piano Magazine is the leading resource for pianists, piano teachers, and piano enthusiasts. We bring you informative, interesting, and inspiring ideas on all aspects of piano teaching, learning, and performing. The official name of Clavier Companion magazine was changed to Piano Magazine in 2019.

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